Ask any Jewish child what holiday is coming next, and it doesn’t matter what time of year it is, they will almost always say “Hanukkah!” Okay, so it’s wishful thinking, but everyone is happy when Hanukkah is really coming next. Hanukkah is a holiday filled with fun!
A Story of Miracles
In 175 B.C.E., during the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews in Israel were ruled by the Syrians, who had adopted Greek culture, customs, and beliefs. A ruthless king named Antiochus IV came to power and, during the next few years, began to persecute the Jews and to prevent them from worshipping in the Temple. Eventually, the Greek-Syrians looted the Temple, burned the Torah, and began conducting pagan sacrifices there.
In 167 B.C.E., a Jewish man named Mattathias, along with his sons, led a group of the people in revolt and a fight for freedom of religion. This group became known as the Maccabees, and within two years, this small group of about 5,000 Jews was successful in defeating a Greek-Syrian army of more than 45,000. This is the first and historic miracle of Hanukkah.
The Lights of Hanukkah
The legendary miracle of Hanukkah came about when the Jews returned to the Temple to purify and rededicate it. As they got ready to light the Temple menorah, they found only one small flask of oil, not nearly enough to last until more olive oil could be purified and prepared. But this small flask of oil, enough for only one day, lasted for eight days and nights. Thus Hanukkah is celebrated with the kindling of lights every night for eight nights.
Families gather each night to light a special menorah (a “Hanukkiah”). Instead of the seven branches seen on other menorahs, a Hanukkiah has nine--one for each night, plus one used as the “servant” (or “Shamash”) to light all the others. Each night, one additional candle is lit, until on the eighth night, the entire Hanukkiah is ablaze with light. Often, each member of the family (including children) has his or her own Menorah. They can be made of many materials, including silver, bronze, copper, or ceramic. Menorahs are often ornate and beautifully decorated--sometimes including Hebrew words and prayers, scenes of Jerusalem, or other Jewish symbols.
No Hanukkah celebration would be complete without some delicious Hanukkah foods--typically foods fried in lots of oil to commemorate the holiday’s miracles. Potato pancakes (“latkes” in Yiddush) are a traditional favorite. And, in Israel, every bakery is filled with hundreds of “sufganiyot.” They look just like ordinary jelly donuts, but they are too delicious to be described! Foil covered chocolate coins are also a favorite among the children, coming from the tradition of giving and receiving small gifts of money (or “Hanukkah gelt”) during this holiday.
Fun and Games
Aside from eating latkes and sufganiyot, everyone’s favorite Hanukkah pastime is a lively game of dreidel. Small spinning tops inscribed with Hebrew letters, dreidels also commemorate the miracles of Hanukkah. The dreidels kids (and adults!) play with are generally made from plastic or wood, but many people also enjoy collecting decorative dreidels, which can be made from silver, pewter, glass, ceramic, or other materials. The Hebrew letters on dreidels from outside of Israel are “Nun”, “Gimmel”, “Hey”, and “Shin”, standing for the Hebrew words “Nes Gadol Haya Sham”, meaning “a great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the “Shin” is replaced with a “Pey” so the phrase reads “Nes Gadol Haya Po”, or “a great miracle happened here.”
For More Information
For more information on the holiday of Hanukkah or other Judaica items, feel free to contact our Judaica experts with any questions or concerns.